When Flint, Michigan officials changed the source of drinking water from Detroit to the Flint River last spring, they assured residents that safety wouldn’t be a concern, even as stories about changes in color, smell of chemicals, and sicknesses circulated through the state and national media outlets.
New research, however, has confirmed the worst, linking the switch in drinking water to a significant increase in the levels of lead found in children’s bloodstream. The study, conducted by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of the Pediatric Residency Program Hurley Medical Center, found elevated lead blood levels — surpassing 5 micrograms per deciliter — in 4 percent of Flint youngsters, which is 2 percentage points higher than what they recorded last year.
Researchers drew blood samples from more than 1,700 children five years of age and younger and analyzed two groups of samples: those taken before and after the switch. They also collected data from children living in the neighboring Genesee County, which still gets its water from the Detroit water system. Those test results found no changes in lead/blood levels among children living in the Genesee area.
Representatives of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, a group dedicated to improving the quality of the community health care system, released a statement calling on local lawmakers to issue an official warning to residents about the dangers of the drinking water.
“The findings released today are alarming. Our top priority has to be doing everything we can and finding every available resource to ensure access to safe water for Flint residents,” Michigan State Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich (D-Flint) said in a statement. “I will be leading an effort to raise state, private and philanthropic resources to deliver filters and clean water into the community as quickly as possible. We must act with urgency to protect Flint residents, especially those most vulnerable to the negative health impacts of lead: children,” Ananich, also chair of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, added.
State regulators quickly decried the study, calling concerns about Flint’s drinking water “near hysteria.” Though Brad Wurfel, spokesperson at the Department of Environmental Quality, told U.S. News the drinking water met state and federal standards, he acknowledged that the aging water pipes haven’t been maintained in more than 40 years.
The recent findings build on research previously conducted by scientists at Virginia Tech (VT) in August during which they collected and analyzed lead levels in 300 Flint homes. The researchers said the water in that area was five times more corrosive than other liquid sources in surrounding areas. VT Civil and environmental engineering professor Marc Edwards cited the study at a press conference earlier this month where he warned Flint residents that the water posed a significant danger to public health, unless it’s properly filtered.
“This [problem with lead] is occurring because the water is too corrosive,” Edwards said. “It has too much salt in it, and there was no plan to control the corrosion when the city began using the river in April 2014. Flint is the only city in American that I’m aware of that does not have a corrosion-control plan in place to stop this kind of problem.”
Once lead enters the bloodstream via inhalation of dust, ingestion of food, drinking of water that flows through lead pipes, or hand to mouth activity, it travels to the nerves, kidneys, brain, muscles, and heart. In children and adults, the lead can be stored in the bones and teeth for decades before flowing into the bloodstream again and further damaging organs.
Long-term exposure to lead can cause blood anemia, colic, kidney damage, muscle weakness, brain damage, and death. Left unabated, lead in the bloodstream also affects reaction time, memory, and retention of new information. Hanna-Atisha’s report said evidence supported the likelihood of decreased IQ among youngsters with lead/blood levels as low as 4 micrograms per deciliter.
The media shed light on the perils of lead exposure earlier this year in the days after Freddie Gray died under mysterious circumstances while in police custody. In 2008, Gray’s family filed a lawsuit against Stanley Rochkind, the owner of a home they rented for four years, arguing that the children’s exposure to the substance played a significant part in their educational, behavioral and medical problems — including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. The residence in question didn’t undergo renovations when Baltimore City officials banned the use of lead-based paint in the 1970s.
On Friday, Hanna-Attisha made an appeal to Michigan lawmakers to prevent similar folly, pointing to the long-term public health effects of lead exposure. She said the issue could no longer be ignored. “It’s our professional obligation to care for the children of Flint if we know something,” Hanna-Attisha told the Associated Press. “Lead poisoning is irreversible. This is not what our community needs. You have to err on the side of caution [and] educate the public.”